Using the arts to champion inclusion - RSA

Using the arts to champion inclusion


  • Picture of Graham Henderson FRSA
    Graham Henderson FRSA
  • Future of Work
  • Behaviour change
  • Accessibility & inclusion
  • Fellowship

When I was working as a litigation solicitor in the City in the 1990s I was also an enthusiastic salsa dancer. What better way to unwind after a 14-hour day at my desk than an hour or so of dancing in a friendly club in Charing Cross Road or Islington where I knew half the people and could always find experienced dance partners. I never made a big thing of it at work, but nor did I lie about my hobby, and word soon got out. Whilst I was not actively discriminated against, the reactions of my colleagues were generally negative, ranging from ridicule through bafflement to something close to moral panic.

It was variously suggested that I must be either gay or a womaniser, or both. And when I indulged my passion for dancing at the Christmas party my colleagues (quite wrongly) put it down to the fact that I must have drunk too much wine. To this day I am puzzled why I faced so many negative reactions for doing something (in my case salsa dancing) that was fun, healthy and greatly increased my efficiency at work. Salsa dancers are not a category of person protected by legislation but this example does raise the question of why employees face negativity and worse just for being different. Presumably the same level of incomprehension might apply to stamp collectors, Star Wars fans, pigeon fanciers and any other kind of hobbyists.

I have been remembering this experience recently because I have been creating an arts-based programme designed to champion LGBT inclusion in the workplace, and this has been getting me thinking about what a truly inclusive workplace looks and feels like. The Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation (R&V), the arts organisation which I run, is committed to promoting the arts and providing platforms for talented up-and-coming artists. It is not an LGBT campaigning organisation, as such. However, the two poets who have inspired it had a gay relationship, so it has always seemed natural that we should also use the arts to champion LGBT inclusion. In designing such a learning and development programme, R&V has been working in partnership with LGBT Capital, an organisation encouraging investment in LGBT friendly organisations, and Voces Academy, one of the leading providers of corporate workshops featuring classical music. The word we have chosen to emphasise is inclusion rather than diversity because the latter suggests only the categories or characteristics covered by law (gender, sexual identity, religious belief, disability) and we are keen not to draw any hard lines between these inclusions (which are a legal requirement) and other forms of difference and variety. In other words, in approaching the question of LGBT inclusion it could be argued that the problem is not really about LGBT intolerance alone but about corporate cultures that require their staff to be conformist drones without any outside lives or interests.

Refocusing our approach in this way has been interesting. Instead of merely rehearsing unacceptable behaviours and exhorting employees to be better at diversity we are instead looking at the more difficult but more rewarding area of culture change within an organisation. Narind Singh is the senior partner in charge of LGBT diversity at Clifford Chance, the world’s largest law firm, and identifies this as the next phase for any corporate learning and development programmes designed to address LGBT inclusion. In general, the policies of big city corporates now reflect best practice in relation to LGBT employees. Anders Jacobsen, co-founder of LGBT Capital, notes that the senior executives have generally ‘got it’. The problem is in addressing the beliefs and behaviours of the middle managers and the support staff. These groups often feel that they are being ‘nagged’ to be more PC and are resentful of the implication that they are prejudiced. ‘The challenge’, says Anders, ‘is to penetrate this ‘permafrost’, and to co-opt and reward employees for recognising the benefits of inclusion, without unduly provoking irritation and resistance’.

I believe that this is where the arts are uniquely placed to make a difference. I know from experience that they are really good at overcoming resistance from grumpy employees (unwillingly taken away from their desks) and at addressing ‘difficult’ and ‘controversial’ subjects. For instance, in 2010 I delivered a programme of workshops for senior executives at Lloyd’s of London, the insurance market. This programme used poets and poetry to raise awareness and provide ideas leadership on the difficult subjects of terrorism, war, refugees and climate change, all issues deeply affecting the business of selling insurance. What was clear was that the arts had an ability to go beyond evidence and facts about these subjects and to connect in new ways, stimulating thought. This is mainly because the arts reframe the issues involved and engage with people on an emotional and an intuitive as well as on a factual level. Statistics about refugees are likely to leave us feeling overwhelmed. But the story of a refugee and her fondness for a kitchen pan, somehow carried across continents, is heart-warming and universal (a poem by the Anglo-Kurdish poet Choman Hardi, a child refugee from the gassing of Kurdish civilians at Halabja by the regime of Saddam Hussein). We can recognise it on a personal level and put ourselves in that person’s shoes. As if to bear out my experience, 'What They Took With Them', a poem by the performance poet Jenni Tosvig based on a long list of items carried by refugees across deserts and seaways (by turn eccentric, funny and heart-breaking), was recently used with great effect by the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, to raise awareness of the plight of those fleeing from Syria and elsewhere.

In the corporate learning and development programme we have designed, R&V is fortunate to be working with Peter Hanke, a leading Danish conductor, and with some world-class classical singers. After much consideration we decided to base our programme on Renaissance Madrigals. In multicultural London this immediately provokes the question of whether this artform is too culturally specific. Why are we proposing to use Renaissance Madrigals when there are so many other great art forms from around the world? Our answer has much to do with the fact that this is a form of music that is going to have a really big impact in the workplace. The music is so strange and so powerful that it is going to represent something new to nearly all the employees who encounter it, regardless of their cultural background. It might just as well be Elvish music from the world of Tolkien, or choral music from the planet Vulcan. One of our important objectives is to enchant the workplace and to reach as many employees as possible over the course of a 3-day programme. As well as the corporate learning and development sessions it is proposed that the programme should include a free concert for all employees of the organisation and a special session with the firm’s in-house choir, if it has one. It is therefore going to be an all workplace experience.

There is also another reason for using this music. It comes from the very time and context in which the modern idea of professionalism was born. If we accept specialism and technical ability as the basis of a high-performance work culture this is mainly based on ideas born in the Renaissance. The Renaissance Madrigal is therefore a powerful metaphor for the way we live now.

Needless to say, we have worked hard to refine the detail of the programme we are offering. As well as powerful musical performance it is going to include plenty of hard evidence about the benefits of LGBT inclusion to creativity, efficiency and the successful commercial performance of companies. The programme is also going to involve a great deal of participation by employees designed to make them think about the benefits of inclusivity in their own lives. Although we are not going to expect anyone to join in with the singing of Renaissance Madrigals, those participating in the course will get to experience the way the singers work up-close, and how this amazing art form uses diversity, active listening, and servant leadership to ensure high-performance. I have observed our partners from Voces Academy delivering corporate workshops and the impact on employees participating in them is enormous. It is an experience that most people will never forget; it is something that overwhelms scepticism and leaves people open-mouthed with wonder.

Perhaps in the end the most important thing to be said about LGBT inclusion is that freedom in our sexual identity is something very ordinary and very normal, even something quite boring. If it is something that can be acknowledged openly it contributes to making an individual a happy and balanced human being, and therefore a creative and productive employee. If it is something that evokes ridicule or bafflement or discrimination, if it is something that needs to remain secret and unspoken, it chokes and stifles our creativity and forces us to lie about the people and the things that are most important to us. What better way than the arts, and astonishing Renaissance Madrigal singing in particular, to demonstrate the importance of recognising human variety in all its glorious colour and diversity?

If any RSA Fellows would like to know more about the R&V Learning and Development programme, Using the Arts to Champion Inclusion, please do not hesitate to contact me. If you are already involved in corporate training and would like to discuss the use of the arts to meet other corporate learning and development objectives, I would be delighted to explore possibilities for collaboration with you.

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